Gabrielle Lazarovitz’s Story

Originally posted: January 8, 2018

I want to start this story off by qualifying that I live a very nice life. I am very privileged and I thank my lucky stars every day that my life is the one it is today. This may change at any moment but today, it’s a good day in a good life. The way I feel about myself and my life is not something I fell into, it’s something I cultivated, this is something I earned.

My life began innocuously enough. I was the third and last child to my parents. At a young age I found an affinity for acting and singing. After my mother snuck me into my first audition at the age of 9 where the strict minimum age for auditioning was 10, I got my first role. I met an agent at this audition and in a very Ottawa, Ontario small scale way: a star was born. I went on auditions, went to Montreal to do voice over work. I took private acting and singing classes and honed my skills from a very young age. I was winning Kiwanis music festivals and making some bank as a child actor. When it finally came time for me to think about university I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what I was already doing. I wanted to go to theatre school. I wanted to continue being an actor.

The private acting school I had attended since the age of 9 had guided me my whole acting life and I trusted their instincts when they told me there were only two prestigious options when it came to theatre school. One was in Montreal and the other was in Toronto. I auditioned for both. I didn’t get into NTS in Montreal despite my heart being set on it. In fact, I didn’t even get a call back. However, I got an offer from the one in Toronto as quickly as they could get it to me. I was chosen. I was wanted. I would “make it”.  I packed by bags. I didn’t look back. I was on my way. No doubt about it. Watch out Rachel MacAdams, I’m gunning for ya.

Before I left, my private acting school in Ottawa gave me a few names of alumni who had gone on to the theatre school I was about to attend. They suggested I meet up with them and get some inside info on what the program was like. I did end up meeting with one of the girls. She warned me about the intensity of the teachers. The cut system. How that led some students to become suicidal. The vacuum I was about to enter. The culture of fear the school was shrouded in and the continued effects it all still had on her psyche. None of it made me bat an eyelash. After all, I was already a professional actor who had the drive and will to succeed. I didn’t see it as a possibly toxic environment; I saw it as another mountain for me to climb. Another scenario where I came out the victor. A situation where I could rely on the one thing I knew to be true at seventeen years old; that I can work hard and achieve anything. After all, up until this point in my young life, no one had ever told me I couldn’t.

The first day was more like an initiation than an introduction. All first years had to present their audition monologues in front of the entire Theatre School faculty and student body. This was all before we had even introduced ourselves to one another or the staff. It seemed like they wanted to hedge their bets, get a good look at the freshmen, see if we sunk or swam.  A long-standing tradition at the school.

After the monologue dive into the deep end everyone went out for drinks at a shoddy bar near the school’s theatre all the way down King Street East. This was before they got new digs in the Distillery District. I remember looking around feeling like I should feel as if I belonged but instead I was filled with a gnawing knowing-ness that this would soon become a distant memory filled with as much nostalgic melancholy as it was with the fading sun of that day.

Here I was: Day Two! I remember not being able to wait to get started. I wasn’t afraid of hard work, in fact, it fueled me. The teachers all seemed nice enough. Parental like figures whom I would do my best to please and get to pat me on the head, give me their stamp of approval, champion me when I finally graduated, and would absolutely be mentioned in any awards speech I was bound to eventually give. They would be the support system I so desperately needed, especially since I had never been away from home or lived on my own as I was now doing for the first time at seventeen.

My first day of acting class was more intense than any audition room I had ever been in. The acting teacher made the class sit on one end of the room while we all had to individually take our turn, walk around in a circle before stopping, face the class and introduce our self. We quickly found out that this was our acting teacher’s opportunity to tell us who he thought we were. This was all before he had even given us our first lesson. He gave us our ‘hit’, the way casting agents will see and cast us. “You look like a jappy Peppermint Patty from Rosedale. You’re afraid of being ugly. You’re afraid. NEXT!” And with that I knew exactly where I stood with him. Never mind the fact that I didn’t know where Rosedale was, didn’t particularly identify that strongly with my Jewishness, or had ever watched or read a Charlie Brown anything. However, it was clear that I would not be getting a pat on the head and as time went on this teacher often forgot I was even a part of the class. He continually paired me with the same scene partner after he had forgotten to give us a scene to prepare. Ignored, bullied, and detested.  I started to internalize all of it.

The movement teacher ignored me as well. She would quote Yoda as if the words had no predecessor and she alone was privy to all the secrets to the human body. If you didn’t have proper alignment and posture, something she was supposed to be teaching us, you were made to feel like a garbage human: void of any worth. Whether she decided to share her wisdom with you was up to her discretion, whim, and favoritism. I guess it didn’t help that I was a loud, outspoken, chesty seventeen-year-old who didn’t know or understand her body. All this led me to think movement work was bullshit. I now hold a different opinion but it took me a long time to get here. Her classes were a three-hour test of patience. I beat myself up for not ‘getting it’. How interesting can sitting on a ‘sacrum ball’ and following your ‘animal impulses’ be? I’ll save you the time and money: not very.

As people began getting cut from the program, the paranoia of the group began to grow. I felt alienated, alone, weak, confused, scared, full of self-loathing and now stricken with insomnia ridden nights. I gained 30 pounds on my 5’5 frame in four months. I felt then and for a long time afterwards that it was all my fault. I turned inward and attacked myself.  I felt scared when I was by myself and paranoid and judged while in class. I was 4 hours away from my hometown, I had no friends, no support from my school, no outlets as I was in school 60+ hours a week, and no self confidence. I had been broken. My once happy, confident, self-assured, go get’er self had been obliterated. They had succeeded in doing what they were known for doing: breaking young people down. They said they would build us back up but before that could happen I was kicked out at the end of my first year.

There was an accomplished actor who came in to replace our Shakespeare teacher.  She came in two months before the end of our second semester. She was there to come in and help us with our Shakespeare scenes. I’ll never forget the day I met her. She would become a mentor and invaluable, life-long friend. She took one look at us all and knew something was wrong. She ditched her lesson plan that first day and urged us to tell her how we were feeling and, it may seem corny, she made us each go around the circle and say one nice thing about each person in our class. We all collectively exhaled. We had never done that: said nice things to each other in that way before, and the year was almost over. We were all so focused on ourselves and making it to the next semester. She was my one saving grace. She saw me, she saw who I was behind all of the fear and anxiety that had taken control of me and with love, skill, and guidance she got me to do my best work. She was a rock. She believed in me and pushed me in a loving way to learn, to think, to explore. They handed us our report card envelopes in front of the whole class and we got to read the news, our fate, in the company of the whole class. A cruel and unnecessary practice. This woman made a point to be there for those of us who would be given the bad news. I remember turning to her and sobbing from such a primal place inside myself that I haven’t touched on since. It was an outpouring. I was exhausted, relieved, overworked, unacknowledged, and seeing my worst fear realized.

This teacher encouraged me to attend my exit interview. I didn’t want to go. The meeting is where my regret comes in. Being the nice, people pleasing teenager I was I wasn’t able to speak up for myself in that interview. I didn’t tell the staff how they had made me feel invisible, hated, unlovable, talentless, incapable, forgotten, a joke, and downtrodden. This school is where I learned to hate myself. They taught me lessons I have spent my entire life since trying to unlearn. I didn’t feel comfortable walking for a long time because I knew I was doing it wrong. I didn’t tell them they were unqualified and cruel. I didn’t tell them how they had made me suffer. I didn’t tell them all the things I wish I had. I didn’t stop them from doing this to others. Their arbitrary decision was a choice that would affect my life every day going forward.  However, I didn’t know that at the time. At the time I was still trying to gain their approval, that pat on the head, that acknowledgment. They were the best school in the country after all. How could they be wrong about me? They must be right, right? I nodded, pretended it didn’t hurt me that badly, and made as many jokes as I could to defuse any tension in the room.  I was still taking responsibility for the harm they had inflicted on me. I didn’t want anyone to be upset with me for showing up.  They told me they weren’t sure I wouldn’t make it in the “real theatre world” but I wasn’t “cut out for their program”, I didn’t “do good work”, I had “a lot to learn”, I was “unfamiliar with my body”, they “didn’t know what to do with me”. They said “it was a shame being so funny wasn’t enough to become a real actor”. They dangled the carrot in front of me once again and took ownership of any success I would maybe, eventually find by telling me “We’re not sure you won’t make it”. I spent every day of my life since wondering if that was true. They didn’t fully kill a dream that had once been the only thing that mattered to me. They instilled in me the attraction to the two most dangerous words I know: “what if?”

What happened over the following decade is full of other stories. Happier stories. Some more tragic stories that are perhaps fodder for a different blog post.  I met and then married the love of my life. I traveled the world. I got a BFA in operatic vocal performance. I studied voice under two people who tested my will in different and newly horrific ways. A story for another time, for sure. I welcomed two nephews into the world. I met and found myself. I made peace with the parts of myself I learned to hate and am working on the ones I haven’t quite gotten there with. I eventually went back to theatre after university and had a professional stage career.

Throughout my career as a professional actor I held a big secret: “I was kicked out of theatre school”. “I was a fraud”. “I wasn’t good enough”. “I don’t belong”. “Everyone will find out”. “The work will dry up.” I secretly feared that they would have the last laugh and laugh at me for even trying when I should have taken the hint at seventeen, thirteen years ago. The higher I climbed the acting ladder the farther the fall felt. My anxieties that I had met in theatre school would come back to me in waves but in riptide-y and wilder waves that are bound to roll in after keeping a secret for so long. I was living a lie. People didn’t know the dirty truth: I was a reject. I was no good.

I know myself better now and I have achieved many things but no matter how many times I felt I was ‘over it’, a bout of insomnia, depression, or self sabotage would bubble to the surface.  My theatre school rejection happened at such a crucial and impressionable time in my life. I was building so many mental pathways, habits, and behaviors that have taken so long to subvert and lessen the grip of. Every audition I ever went to since has felt like I’ve snuck in uninvited, or that I was about to let someone down, or disrespect them by wasting their time. Instead I should have simply shown up, done my work, thanked them, and left. The stakes became so terrifyingly high. Every job I got was a middle finger in the face of every teacher who tossed me aside like garbage. Every rejection was confirmation that they were right. My identity became so wrapped up in my impostor syndrome that all other aspects of my life were muted, less important, undervalued, muffled… as if everything else was under water.

A student who made it through the entire program wrote a manifesto and sent it out to all of his theatre contacts after he graduated. This was about ten years ago. It was met with cease and desists from the school.  They chose to plead ignorance. More recently an article came out on a Toronto theatre blog detailing a former student’s experiences at the same school.  I was shocked to basically read my exact experience word for word off the screen. Two thoughts ran through my mind: 1) They treated other people in the exact same way. Almost the exact same words were spoken to me. 2) This was still happening! Thirteen years later. What is wrong with them? The old wounds opened up. A friend of mine who attended the same school and program at a different time than me had the school reach out to her. The blog article caused a stir online and they wanted to collect information from past students. She posted online asking if anyone would like to be involved and, in the spirit of reconciliation and out of respect for myself I said “abso-fucking-lutely.” Here’s the next turn of the screw: they told her they weren’t interested in my perspective because I didn’t complete the program. As if that was my choice. Once again, I was tossed aside with no regard. Like a chocolate bar wrapper on a city sidewalk that never made its way to the garbage bin. Forgotten. Overlooked.

I recently took a step back from acting full time. I took an admin job at a theatre company in my home town, Ottawa, and worried I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I had gotten off the submission hamster wheel, given up the ghost. I had finally proven them right, I didn’t ‘make it’. I did however, surprisingly, find a place where I fit in, am somewhat respected, hell, even, maybe appreciated? The best part is I get to support my passion: the theatre.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if their arbitrary decision had gone the other way. Where would I be if I had had the support of my school and was allowed to graduate the program I had so deeply invested in? Would I have been one of the lucky ones? What if? What if I had the chance to tell them the effect their decision had on my life? What if they had treated us with more humanity? What if they had supported me? What if they had listened to my Shakespeare teacher?  What if we had been taught to love our work and create? What if?

I guess life isn’t about the knowing it’s about the questions. It’s about response. It’s about how you internalize and externalize your worst fears and most intricate neuroses. It’s about finding peace when you just want to beat up on yourself. It’s about making friends with that inner darkness and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Or, maybe it’s about putting your middle fingers into the sky and saying “fuck it” instead of sticking them in the face of the people who did you wrong. Because after all, they do have their own consciences to contend with.